Mystery plays and medieval drama

Medieval drama and the mystery plays

The mystery plays and morality plays of the 15th and 16th centuries were very different from modern drama. They were performed in public spaces by ordinary people, and organised and funded by guilds of craftsmen and merchants. Hetta Howes takes us back in time to show how these plays portrayed scenes from the Bible, conveyed religious doctrine and encouraged their audiences to lead Christian lives.

The words ‘theatre’ and ‘drama’ conjure a specific set of ideas, writers and images for us today. Shakespeare may well be the first name to spring to mind – followed perhaps by Ibsen or Chekhov. Then, most likely, comes the image of a fixed stage, a darkened room and a reverent hush as the lights go down and the curtains go up. What kind of stories do we expect to be performed for us? Tragedy, often, as well as romance, explorations of the meaning of humanity, or, at the other end of the spectrum, slapstick comedy. Theatre may be rich in variety, but it nonetheless comes with its own set of associations and expectations attached.

While modern theatre undoubtedly finds many of its origins in medieval drama, the mystery plays, pageants and morality plays of the 15th and 16th centuries are actually a very different animal, with quite a different set of associations. Imagine not a fixed stage and a darkened room, but mobile theatre out on the streets. Some people are watching carefully, but others are chatting with their friends, or buying food and merchandise from nearby vendors – keeping only one eye on the stage. Instead of the latest big name from an HBO series, you may well recognise a number of the actors from your own daily life. And instead of a focus on the individual and human relationships, you’re treated to scenes from the Bible, about Christianity and the history of salvation. Medieval drama took many forms, but the most spectacular of all was the religious drama of towns such as York, Chester, Coventry and Wakefield, known as the ‘mystery plays.’

The York Plays

The York Plays

Manuscript of the York Plays, one of the four complete surviving medieval play cycles. The plays were performed together in a sequence to form a narrative that begins with the story of Adam and Eve and ends with the Last Judgement.

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The mystery plays

The mystery plays are sequences of performances, sometimes referred to as ‘cycle plays’ because they make up a cycle of 48 surviving short playlets. Throughout the 15th and into the 16th century, around 300 years before the building of the London playhouses, these cycles were the most popular and enduring form of theatre in Britain, performed annually in the biggest towns and cities of the country. They are most commonly known as the ‘mystery plays’ for two reasons. Firstly, they took the mysteries of God as their primary theme. They aimed to show, in the course of a day, the whole history of the universe from the creation of Heaven and Earth to the Last Judgement – the end of the world, when everyone on earth will be judged by God and divided between Heaven and Hell, salvation and damnation. Secondly, these plays were organised, funded and produced by guilds, which were also called ‘mysteries’ in the Middle Ages. Guilds were associations of craftsmen or merchants, who were in charge of regulating and teaching their trade; they were often wealthy and wielded considerable power.

Holkham Bible Picture Book

Holkham Bible Picture Book

God’s creation of living creatures: a scene from the Book of Genesis found in the richly illustrated Holkham Bible.

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The mystery plays gave guilds the opportunity to advertise and show off their wares. A play about Noah’s Ark and the Flood would be sponsored by the Shipbuilders, who provided the ark itself, and the Goldsmiths would be in charge of the play of the Magi, donating lavish gifts as props. According to a surviving public proclamation from York, the guilds were also in charge of sourcing ‘good players, well arranged, and openly speaking’. Significantly, these players weren’t usually professionals. They were ordinary people with a taste for drama – so you might well see your friend, neighbour or local butcher in the cast, as Herod, Noah or even Jesus.

Holkham Bible Picture Book

Holkham Bible Picture Book

Noah’s Ark and the Flood: a scene found in the Holkham Bible.

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Another detail which sets these plays apart from modern drama is their mobility. The plays were usually performed on separate pageant wagons, with wheels, so that they could be moved. The wagons would proceed, one after another, and the players would perform on them at various fixed stations around the town or city. The audience could pay a bit more to have a seat at these various stations, or they could stand – and this gave them more autonomy over their experience. They could either stay at one station and watch every play, or dip in and out, wandering between the different stations – something more akin to the immersive theatre which has found such popularity in recent years, than a West End show or a play at the National. The players performed their historical stories in up-to-date settings, making references to local landmarks, disputes and characters in order to root the action not only in the contemporary moment, but in their particular location. In this way, the players drew their audience into the playworld, making the mysteries of God and the history of Christianity feel more present and accessible.

The N-town Plays

The N-town Plays

Underlined in red ink, these stage directions for 'Satan and Pilate's wife' (play 31 from the N-Town Plays) give us a sense of how the mystery plays were staged. This play was performed on a raised scaffold, with substantial scenery including a curtain and bed.

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We don’t know who wrote these plays, and there is evidence of some that existed and were performed – for example in Clerkenwell, London – but have now unfortunately been lost. However, we do know that they were written for the community, and performed out in the streets and public spaces for the community, rather than in private playhouses for the more elite.

Irreverence and criticism

Students of medieval mystery plays are often surprised, even shocked, by their humour. Noah is portrayed as a bit of a drunken fool, and his wife as a shrewish nag. The York play of the Crucifixion, which concerns Jesus being nailed to the Cross, sees the soldiers arguing and making the audience laugh with their incompetence. This might seem sacrilegious to a modern audience, but it was part and parcel of medieval life and the attitude of medieval Christians to their religion. The comic nature of Noah’s character in these plays did not detract from the overall importance and significance of their Christian message: it just amused and entertained the audience on the journey to salvation. The black humour of the York play of the Crucifixion did not risk dampening the awe and glory of Christ rising from the dead, fighting back devils or allocating the saved to Heaven – rather, it amplified his triumph. The mystery plays seem to have been tacitly approved and sanctioned by the Church, even if religious authorities weren’t directly involved in the plays themselves. It wasn’t until the Reformation that these plays suffered serious revision, increased regulation and ultimately a phasing out.

A surviving manuscript, housed in the British Library, shows that there were some critics of these plays, even if the majority welcomed and enjoyed them. The Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge (c. 1380–1425, Add MS 24202), the first work of theatre criticism in English, condemns the mystery plays for their blurring of the divine and the human. How could a human being play the role of Jesus? Didn’t performing the sacred mysteries and sacraments of God with ordinary objects detract from them? ‘Whanne we pleyin his miraclis’, the Tretise complains, ‘God takith more venjaunce on us than a lord that sodaynly sleeth his servaunt for he pleyide to homely [familiar] with him’. These accusations are precursors to the kinds of criticism levelled at the mystery plays during the Reformation, which would eventually lead to their demise. However, it is safe to say that for a couple of hundred years they were a sanctioned and celebrated way of telling the story of Christianity.

Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge

Treatise of Miraclis Pleyinge

The anonymous author of The Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge, the first work of theatre criticism in English, was concerned that religious drama made a mockery of the work of God and the story of the crucifixion of Jesus.

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Morality plays

Mystery plays may have been the most popular form of theatre in the Middle Ages, but they weren’t the only one. Mumming, revels, interludes and pageants were all part of medieval theatrical life, and a number of critics have even drawn attention to the performative nature of church rituals, such as the Liturgy and the Eucharist. Another popular genre was the morality play, which endured into the Tudor period. Morality plays are allegorical (i.e. the characters and events have symbolic meaning) and provide their audience with Christian moral guidance. In this kind of religious drama we follow a primary character (representing mankind) as they encounter a cast of personified vices and virtues, before ultimately turning to righteousness and salvation. Such serious themes are counterpointed by moments of farcical comedy, primarily provided by the vice characters. The plays were usually quite short and were performed by semi-professionals who relied on public support.

Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis

Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis

Written in Old Scots, David Lindsay’s morality play Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis is a work of searing social satire.

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One such play is Everyman, which was printed in 1510. In this play, the titular character discovers that he is about to die. He must provide God with a book of accounts, detailing the good deeds he has done, in order to save his soul and gain access to Heaven. In despair, Everyman realises that he has misspent his life and his account book is almost empty. The play follows him on a spiritual journey, where allegorical characters such as Friendship and Beauty desert him but others, for example Good Deeds and Confession, instruct and advise him, helping him to turn his life around before his death. The play not only teaches the audience some complex Christian doctrine, but more importantly it encourages them to look to their own lives and souls, before it’s too late. Little is known about the circumstances in which Everyman was performed – and, in fact, there is no record of any performance at all until 1901. On the title page of the printed edition, Everyman is referred to as a ‘treatise’ as well as a ‘play’, which has led some critics to suggest that it might have been designed for reading rather than performance. However, it is certainly presented as a play, with characters and assigned dialogue, and it was successfully updated for a modern audience at the National in London in 2015. Carol Ann Duffy translated the older text into modern verse and Chiwetel Ejiofor took the lead role, as a rich banker who is visited by Death during his over-extravagant, drug-fuelled birthday party.

Everyman, a morality play

Everyman, a morality play

Woodcut illustrations of allegorical characters, including Everyman, Beauty and Strength, from a rare copy of Everyman (The somonynge of every man), printed c. 1530.

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Photograph of a 2015 production of Everyman

Photograph of a 2015 production of Everyman

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Everyman; in the background are actors wearing luminous neon masks in the allegorical role of ‘Fellowship’.

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Theatre today looks and feels very different. The mystery plays may be revived in York every other year, but they exist as a novelty and historical artefact rather than an integral part of annual life. Morality plays, meanwhile, need significant updates to make them palatable for a modern audience. However, it’s worth remembering that these are the plays that Shakespeare, Marlowe and their contemporaries would have grown up watching. They have, in their own way, inspired those forms of drama which remain popular today, and they speak to an enduring concern not only of contemporary drama, but of literature more generally: what happens when we die, and how do we live a good life until then?

  • Hetta Elizabeth Howes
  • Dr. Hetta Elizabeth Howes is a Lecturer in Medieval and Early Modern Literature at City, University of London and a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker. She has published on crying and cleansing in Aelred of Rievaulx's writings for women and the relationship between blood and shame in medieval lyrics. She is currently turning her doctoral thesis into a monograph, examining the role of water as a literary metaphor in devotional prose – with a particular emphasis on works written for and by women.

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